What You Know Can Keep You Stuck

Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

By: David Maister

As the title of David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker suggests, the problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do: it’s that we do know and yet we choose to ignore that knowledge. Maister promises a dose of “real” strategy: “Real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared top others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.” In other words, it’s all about implementation, and that’s the focus of the book.

Organized in sections pertaining to how organizations should think about strategy itself, clients (including marketing and selling), and management, Strategy and the Fat Smoker speaks to those who understand that knowing without doing brings little value. This can be a trap for lawyers, because we like to find the best answer and so we can research and think and plan well past the point of diminished returns. But “best” can sound like “perfect,” and perfect is unattainable.

Maister’s introductory chapters on strategy include several gems, including:

If you truly want to succeed (and many people do not want it badly enough to make it happen) then you must never settle, never give up, never coast, never just accept what is, even if you are currently performing at a high level.


[T]he primary outcome of strategic planning should not be analytical insight or smart choices, but a superior resolve to accomplish something.


The best way to approach this re-evaluation [of the organization’s purpose, mission, vision and values] is to begin with a very small inner circle of top management leaders, who can look each other in the eyes and ask: “Are these really the decision rules we as leaders are prepared to stick with?”

Maister invites readers to plunge in with any chapter, and Chapter 17, titled The Trouble with Lawyers, invites study. Maister’s preface to this chapter indicates that he originally wrote it to explain, “Why lawyers and law firms are different from other professions.” He then notes that others in consulting and the financial services industry identify with the culture and behavior that Maister ascribes to the legal profession, but almost any lawyer who reads this chapter will recognize that Maister is indeed speaking to us.

Maister highlights four problems that prevent “lawyers from effectively functioning in groups:”

  • problems with trust;
  • difficulties with ideology, values, and principles;
  • professional detachment; and
  • unusual approaches to decision making (referring to lawyers’ propensity to attack any idea presented to locate and highlight its weaknesses, with the result that “within a short time, most ideas, no matter who initiates them, will be destroyed, dismissed, or postponed for future examination.”)

Having identified and explained these peculiarities, Maister asks why lawyers do so well financially if the profession is riddled with these problems. His answer?

The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers. If everyone else does things equally poorly, and clients and recruits find little variation between firms, even the most egregious behavior will not lead to a competitive disadvantage.

Writing in 2007, Maister suggests that only client pressure is likely to compel firms to begin to act “as firms — delivering seamless service, practice areas that have depth (and not just a collection of individualistic stars), and true, cross-boundary teamwork.” The last few years have demonstrated exactly that client pressure, and some firms have prospered while others have self-destructed. Maister’s books (including the classics The Trusted Advisor and Managing the Professional Service Firm) offer numerous insights into how lawyers and firms may shift with (or even in advance of) client pressure.

Other chapters of Strategy and the Fat Smoker have application to lawyers and firms as well. (See, for example, a chapter on client relationships that asks the key question, Do You Really Want Relationships? and the chapter titled Strategy Means Saying “No”.) The book does an excellent job of delivering its subtitled promise of teaching organizations and individuals to do “what’s obvious but not easy.” It’s readable, practical, and insightful. Buy it, read it, and apply it.

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